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The Craft of Writing I: Show and Tell

September 3, 2010

The Craft of Writing I: Show and Tell
(or Your Entrance Was Good, His Was Better. Difference? Showmanship.)

Contrast these two sentences:

Jimmy got angry and punched Bobby in the face.

Jimmy’s cheeks burned as his jaw clenched, his hands tightening into fists almost of their own accord, and before he stopped to think about it, his fist lashed out and struck Bobby’s face.

Both sentences portray the exact same actions: Jimmy is angry, and he hits Bobby. How do we know that?

Well, in the first sentence, we know it because the author told us. It works, but it’s kind of flat, isn’t it? Notice, though, that in the second sentence it’s never stated that Jimmy is angry, but you know it anyway. Why? Because the author shows us the physical signs of Jimmy’s anger.

We’ve all been angry at some point. We all know what it feels like to become angry. We know how our body reacts to that emotion, and so when we read about someone displaying that same bodily reaction, we naturally associate it with that emotion. We know what emotion he is feeling because of his outward reaction. This is a much stronger way of portraying emotion because it evokes a more visceral response from the reader.

Think about a history book. Yes, there are people out there that absolutely adore history, but most people will agree that your standard history book makes for dry reading. The reason why is because it only tells you what happened. When we read for pleasure, we want to be caught up in the tale that’s being told, and the way that happens is if it doesn’t feel as if we’re being told anything at all.

There are some key signs to know if you’re telling rather than showing.

The word ‘felt’ is a big red flag. If you’re using ‘felt’ for anything other than the sense of touch, you should re-evaluate your sentence.

The use of the word ‘got’. Apart from being just a very lazy narrative word to begin with, you can always restructure a sentence that uses it into a sharper, far more engaging one. (Example: He got the water. vs He poured a glass of water.)

Any use of an emotion word (angry, happy, sad, scared, upset, etc.). Instead of saying these words, show them by describing the character outwardly expressing the emotion. If you’re in the character’s head at the time, show what that character is thinking while he is angry (because when we’re angry, we don’t think, ‘Wow, I’m angry’, do we?). If you’re in another character’s head, you are restricted to the outward physical expressions, obviously, but there are almost always some common bodily expressions of emotion to any more-than-casual observer.

Which is not to say that you should be wordy in you showing. It’s not necessary to go on for sentences and paragraphs describing how the character is scared. You’d be dancing in the realm of purple prose then (which I’ll be dealing with in another post). There are always exceptions, of course. If, for instance, the character has never felt love or fear, it’s okay to linger on it for a bit as dramatic effect provided you’re in that character’s head at the time. Obviously, Billy is not going to spend three paragraphs going on about how Hank is scared for the first time, but if you’re in Hank’s head, it’s natural. These kinds of emotions do linger and draw you more internally as you’re slightly overwhelmed by them.

If you find yourself using the word ‘felt’ followed by an emotion word (‘felt overwhelmed’), take a step back and ask yourself if there is a better way to show your reader that your character feels overwhelmed. Show me the emotion, don’t just tell me about it, because it’s the showing that will make a book linger in the minds of readers.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Beth permalink
    September 3, 2010 6:31 pm

    I love this. I may use it with my students (crediting you, of course), if you have no objection….

  2. September 3, 2010 6:55 pm

    No objection at all. 🙂 Go right ahead! It’s why I’m doing the series of writing posts.

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